“Do You Get My Drift?” Why ‘Off-topic’ ethnographic thinking should be your 2018 research goal

I started my research training in the early 1990s, and in those days, everything was about sticking firmly to the stated objective of the brief. I still have my trusted copy of Aaker & Day’s 700-page bible “Market Research” (1980) that states: “The research objective is a statement, in as precise terminology as possible, of what information is needed.”

It goes on to define the core three things you need for your research:

  1. your research question
  2. your research hypothesis (the answers you’re trying to prove/disprove)
  3. the scope or boundaries of your research

And, as foundation training for market researchers, such guidelines were sound advice. If you didn’t set these things in place, you risked not really knowing what you were looking for. Your research would drift around, and be vague, unfocused. Valueless.

However, as time went by, I began to find that these ‘golden rules’ were not always helping me to understand what was actually going on. In fact, when it came to making sense of human complexity, this structure, if taken too rigidly, was getting in the way of finding the insight I was looking for.

The turning point for me was when conducting a research study in Australia, exploring the best-selling soft drinks sold from petrol stations. My brief was clear – find out what’s selling, and redesign the drinks layout in the chiller cabinets, to maximise further sales.

The newly installed barcode scanners showed me clearly what was selling and when. But it wasn’t what I expected - my hypothesis (of sorts) was that Coca-Cola would be way out in front, and yet iced coffee-flavored milk was outselling my expected winner by a ratio of 3:1, especially sold at mid-late morning each day. I had the answer but I didn’t understand the data.

So I flew to Adelaide (I was based in Head Office in Melbourne), and spent a couple of days, parked across the street, watching who came and went, and following them in and out of the store. I chatted to staff, and even to some of the local storeowners on the street.

Unknowingly, I had ventured into ethnographic research, and was certainly stepping outside of my brief and project scope by doing so. Yet, after those two days, I had acquired not only the insight I needed to understand what was happening (who was buying this product and why), but also how I could apply it to sell more non-drink products too (the answers are at the end of this blog!)

Since then, I’ve spent over 20 years, trying never to forget the cultural context of a research question – to encourage clients to look beyond simply the design or redesign process they are hoping to improve from the study. In particular, I’m trying to interpret the human interaction – to be curious, to defer judgment, and to document not just the datapoints, but also the stories that lie behind them.

Much of my work is patient experience healthcare research, which perhaps more than any other industry in recent years, has made a conscious effort to become ‘patient-centric’. Yet, even now, there remains a resistance to venturing away from established patient pathways and journey steps. Pharmaceutical companies are nervous of straying too far into open-ended patient interaction, for fear of what might be revealed (adverse events and conversation topics not pre-approved). Yet such ‘off-the-beaten-track’ avenues are navigable, both from a legal & ethics compliance standpoint, as well as a viable research methodology.

Indeed, far from being “off-topic”, these unknown or lesser-known places are often where the most valuable insight lies. They are the ‘cultural-glue’ that sticks together well-known medical insights with context-led issues from the everyday lives of patients. Collectively, they make up what the outstanding ethnographer Jay Hasbrouck calls an “ecosystem of observations”.

By allowing the scope of research study to go “off-piste” (perhaps a more palatable phrase for clients than “off-topic”!), organizations are rewarded by real-life, holistic insight, rarely seen by competitors or even other stakeholders. It’s true that, like skiers venturing beyond the approved trail map, a degree of expertise and responsibility from the researcher is required. But such adventures are not aimless wandering – they are still part of the scope of the mountain. If you get my drift…….

Footnote: for the record, iced coffee sales in Adelaide were primarily purchased and consumed on-the-spot by manual workers. They started work early, to avoid the heat of the day, and by mid-morning, needed both refreshment but also protein (hunger). Iced milk was perfect, but most flavors were aimed at children (strawberry, chocolate) and were too sweet for many. Iced coffee flavor was less sweet, and psychologically provided a “coffee-break” that seemed to fit with the time of day.

Having identified this insight, the client introduced promotions, bundling other snacks with an iced milk drink, including items that could be eaten later in the day without spoiling in the sun. Total sales grew, even without having to extend chiller space for the milk items themselves.


Max Wieselmann – my mentor of the day, who taught me how to look for insight throughout an environment – physical, social and emotional.

Jay Hasbrouck – whose new book “Ethnographic Thinking” deserves to be as standard a text for researchers and clients as Aacker & Day was for me so long ago!

Photo credit: Photo by rainytect - http://flic.kr/p/3MPR28